Palomar Observatory
Location: 145 km South-East of Los Angeles
Altitude: 1712 m
Telescopes: 200-inch Hale, 60-inch, 48-inch Schmidt, etc.
FUN FACTS: the residence is called the Monastery

Palomar mountain is located in the gorgeous San Diego backcountry, about a 90-minute drive from San Diego and just a 2h30 from the sprawling city of Los Angeles. Based on the thoughtful vision of George Ellery Hale (who built the world’s largest telescope many times), Palomar Observatory features the venerable 200-inch (5.1-meter) Hale telescope, which stayed the biggest telescope in the world for almost 30 years, and the most important one for almost 50!

The observatory is still very active, despite its age. Many technological developments are still going on, partly due to its proximity with Los Angeles and its research centers (Caltech operates the site). Indeed, the 5.1-meter telescope benefits from the latest refinements in adaptive optics, coronagraphy and associated control technologies.

Check out a beautiful timelapse here.

W.M. Keck Observatory (WMKO)
Location: Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Altitude: 4,145 meters
Telescopes: twin 10-meter 
FUN FACTS: can’t breath up there.

Even though I never visited the Summit, WMKO is very special to me and my group. Most of our data currently (2016) comes from this absolutely amazing observatory and site, perhaps the best astronomical site in the world. The seeing (a measure of site quality), is stunning. The Keck adaptive optics (AO) system is without any doubt the most reliable in the world. My collaborators and I have recently installed a new generation vortex coronagraph in NIRC2, the workhorse infrared camera of WMKO. We use the system several times per year to look for exoplanets around young stars. 

The Keck adaptive optics system is also equipped with a state-of-the-art laser guide star that allows astronomer to use adaptive optics on objects too faint for regular natural guide star. This feature is one of the strengths of Keck AO, and provides its user the best sky coverage of any AO.

Jet Propulsion Lab
Location: Pasadena, CA
Personnel: ~5000
MISSIONS: 100, and counting (see below)
FUN FACTS: the -Rover Crossing- signs all over the lab

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by the California Institute of Technology for NASA, has barely anything to do with Jet Propulsion anymore. It is a huge place (about 5000 employees), almost entirely dedicated to building robotic spacecraft for Earth remote-sensing programs, Solar system in-situ exploration, and outer space studies. Amongst the greatest achievements of JPL are the legendary Poyneer, Voyager, Viking mission. More recently, JPL accumulated numerous amazing successes with the Cassini-Huygens mission orbiting Saturn, the various Mars rovers and exploratory probes, WFC2 the camera that helped save Hubble, and so much more. The deep space network is also operated from JPL... In short, JPL constantly pushes the outpost of human kind further into the cosmos…

JPL is nested on the foothills the San Gabriel mountains, just North of Los Angeles. This is a huge but gorgeous place to work at, full of history, and totally embracing the future...

The short video here shows how it all started! Fascinating!

Paranal Observatory
Location: 120 km South of Antofagasta (Chile)
Altitude: 2685 m 
Telescopes: VLT (4x8.2m+4x1.8m), VISTA&VST, NGTS
FUN FACTS: Filming location for James Bond: Quantum of Solace

Paranal observatory, on top of Cerro Paranal in the middle of the Chilean Atacama desert, one of the most amazing places on Earth, is the pride of the European Southern Observatory. Barren landscapes, dry winds, barely any clouds, high altitude (2635 m) and isolation makes this place ideal for astronomy, a true astronomer paradise. Sky transparency is breath taking, and light pollution virtually non-existent (the closest human settlement is 120 km away). Paranal is the biggest optical observatory in the world, it hosts the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which is composed of 4 giant 8.2-meter telescopes (all equipped with 2-3 instruments), and 4 1.8-meter auxiliary telescopes. All of them can be combined together (up to 4 at a time) to form the most powerful virtual telescope in the world (16-meter equivalent in collecting area, or up to 200-meter equivalent in angular resolution). In this particular mode, the VLT then morphs into the VLT-interferometer... The site also hosts a 4-meter and 2-meter survey telescopes, called VISTA and VST, respectively.

Check out the time-lapse video here (best in HD). A picture is worth a 1000 words, here the authors of this fantastic 5-min sequence used no less than 7500 photos!

© Dimitri Mawet 2017